Inspired By Success, Prairie Heights Teacher Joins Summit Learning Fellows Program to ‘Help Teachers Become Better Teachers’

Twenty years into her career, Traci Underwood felt like an excited rookie teacher again.

In the summer of 2017, Underwood and her colleagues went through training for a research-based program called Summit Learning that was coming to Prairie Heights Middle School in Evans, Colo. At the time, the school was being closely watched by the Colorado Department of Education after low performance scores placed Prairie Heights in “innovation status,” a designation that allows schools to try new educational approaches to improve results.

Underwood, a Language Arts teacher, had a positive first impression from Summit Learning’s summer training and was encouraged to see her optimism shared by others during the ensuing school year. 

There was obviously a lot to learn for both teachers and students as they grew accustomed to the program. But, more importantly, there was also a lot of noticeable progress. 

“I was like a first-year teacher when we first implemented Summit because it was such a new way to learn,” Underwood said. “I’m telling you what, though, the growth of our kids was evident right away. I can’t say enough about how Summit Learning helped them become more rigorous and persevere through difficult times with their learning.”

After one year with Summit Learning, Prairie Heights’ School Performance Rating went from the second-lowest framework on the state’s school accountability system to the highest. That upward trajectory continued over the next two school years as Prairie Heights posted test scores well above the state and district averages. There was also a decrease in discipline referrals among the sixth- through eighth-graders at the school.

“We had to come up with an innovation plan to raise our scores and so we took on the Summit curriculum and it worked so well so quickly,” Underwood said. “That’s why I really got actively involved with Summit and their Fellows group because I truly believe in the program and its importance to students’ growth.”

In the summer of 2019, Underwood eagerly became a Summit Learning Fellow and joined a team of teachers and school leaders that helped train new members of the Summit community from across the country. Underwood, who remembered how valuable her training experience was when she first learned the program, then took what she gained as a Fellow and led training sessions for her fellow Prairie Heights educators.

“I like to be the biggest leader I can be here at my school and help teachers become better teachers,” Underwood said.

That passion for helping others led Underwood to become even more involved this past summer when she was selected to be among the first Assessment Fellows for Summit Learning. The new fellowship group of 20 people were an even mix of Summit Learning teachers and seasoned assessment professionals from the education space.

The primary goal for Assessment Fellows was to deepen their understanding of the Summit Learning Cognitive Skills Rubric, which is an assessment and instruction tool that outlines the core skills children must develop to prepare for further education and life outside the classroom.

In particular, Underwood and her peers spent three weeks focused on scoring real samples of students’ Summit Learning project work to produce exemplars and increase overall scoring accuracy among all grade levels and schools.

“It was a great experience because it made you stay focused and give everything the correct score,” Underwood said. “You had to actually highlight evidence to prove what score you were giving it. After you would score, you would also have to type up a rationale of why you were giving it that score and that really helped move our discussions along to come to consensus on a final score.”

Underwood, who has taught Language Arts at the middle school level for the past 23 years, enjoyed the challenge of scoring work from older students. That included poetry analysis on a series of poems written by high school seniors.

“That was way out of my comfort zone,” Underwood said, laughing. “I’ve never really been exposed to 12th-grade writing so it was a huge learning curve for me. But I learned so much through the process. It showed me that this type of scoring works because you’re really focusing on the Cognitive Skills Rubric and finding the specific evidence to support the score you give.”

In all, the Assessment Fellows scored and normed 766 work samples from 15 projects during an engaging three-week program. A three-day training with the whole group kicked off the program before participants broke off into smaller teams. Underwood especially enjoyed the collaboration between others who worked on the same project and hearing why they scored the way they did. 

The Assessment Fellows were the first participants of a newly-developed scorer’s training, and their feedback during that time fine-tuned the materials that will be published and shared with the Summit Learning community. 

“The people that are in the Fellow program are all intrinsically motivated,” Underwood said. “They know they’re going to go and put in the work with Summit during the summer and the intention is to come back and help train their staff as well.”

Underwood, who will soon train her Prairie Heights colleagues on scoring methods, is excited to take what she learned and use it on her students’ projects this school year. She is also more encouraged than ever that the emphasis placed on scoring accuracy through the ongoing Assessment Fellowship program will pay big dividends going forward for Summit Learning schools.

“I love the feedback element of Summit,” Underwood said. “Traditionally, after a student would turn in their writing, I would take time, write comments, and they would look at it and maybe just throw it in the waste basket as they left the room. But now, they’re actually having to look at my feedback and make revisions and we improve their writing together.

“It’s not just turn it in, get a grade, and that’s it. We’re going to keep working on it, and keep revising, until you’re at or exceeded the grade level we need you to be at. And I know I’m now going to be a much better scorer for my students because of this Fellows work.”

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.